Who do you work with?

Image from FlickR Courtesy of  Sarah Parrott
Image from FlickR Courtesy of Sarah Parrott

There was a great question on Twitter from Mark Britz the other day:

L&D – want to be seen as a separate function of your business? Keep referring to ppl as attendees & learners. Everyone else says employee

Why do we use the word learner?  Is it to demonstrate our expertise?  I had a similar conversation this week when someone I work with talked about ‘service users’ rather than people. Have a look at the list below with my tongue in cheek interpretations of how your workplace learning function may be perceived…


Good luck in your election.  Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to complete our 7 mandatory elearning modules and 3 classroom sessions.  We’ll then give you a certificate to confirm your award.


Isn’t that a nice word…it sets an expectation that people will have to do something.  It’s a levelling word too – we’re not any better than you but we’re setting an expectation that you need to contribute.  And you will contribute – there’ll be lots of exercises.


Calling you an attendee means it’s nice to know you at least turned up.  We can’t comment on how attendant you were during the session, but we can count the fact you were there to add data to our learning stats.


We sell learning and want you to feel that you are receiving elements of service from our product.  So you’ll get lots of product; look out for the quality of slides, handouts, and refreshments.  You’re a customer…you deserve it.


As a delegate we’re pleased you’re here, really pleased since we can delegate the ownership of the learning back to you.  We’re also handing back to you the responsibility to take this back to the workplace and do something different.  Most importantly, we’re delegating to you, the delegate, the accountability if the learning event doesn’t work.


Inextricably linked with classrooms, students are welcome to come to ‘our’ space to learn.  The inference is you’ll study, so again, we absolve responsibility if you don’t learn.  It also throws up the whole education thesaurus of curricula, tutor and pedagogy which makes us sound clever and affirms the teacher-pupil relationship that creates our command and control mentality.

Which term do you use?  What do you call the people you offer support to?  Are they learners in your world, or are you something in theirs?

Comments, as always, more than welcome.

10 thoughts on “Who do you work with?

  1. Mmmmm. Words are important but cant we get caught up in semantics. What if i dont just train employees, what if i do partners, service providers and voluntary organisation, what do i call them then?
    Why dont we ask the people wh take part in the training?


  2. Learner is not appropriate in my opinion. It almost implies that the only time “learning” takes place is in a formal setting when we know much more learning happens outside of those environments, where they are employees. Learner is one level above student and that seems a bit patronizing. William, I am honestly less concerned about the worker and their feelings about a label and more that of executive perception.

    “Employee”, staff, partner, etc focuses on the work, not the learning and THAT is what the brass cares about.

    It may seem a silly semantic debate but I think this aids in L&D being the first to get cut in many orgs when times get tough. Easier for executives to remove the part that is set apart…


  3. Thanks William. I don’t think it’s semantics; we’ve created a language within L&D that we use to differentiate ourselves from the business. It doesn’t do us any favours, as Mark says, if we’re using different words to what the business uses.

    If you asked the people you were training, you’d likely come back with the list I created and more. I’m questioning (as is Peter’s blog) whether the words frame what we do to an extent that (in some cases) we’ve become a parody of ourselves.


  4. I agree with the comments outlined above. It’s a timely blog post. Just two days ago, a colleague in the L&D team here and I had a discussion about this topic. It came about through editing a document and I crossed off ‘Learner’ and replaced with ‘participant’. I explained that the term ‘learner’ is seen as a derogatory term and that our team members are all subject matter experts in their own right on-the-job and the term just doesn’t “fit” with informal learning. I also expressed that the language seems ‘old school’ and separates us from being looked at professionally in the business.

    Her argument was different to mine however. As an ex-school teacher she had no issue with the term “learner” and it would mean a change in all materials and that we would be going around in circles. In the end we agreed to disagree but it was to remain ‘learner’. I have some influencing work to do yet…


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